The Beauty of Bill Pope – Stylebender of Cinematography

By Angel

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This could not be more true. Allow me to show you the truth in that statement with what I believe to be the most powerful singular image in all of cinema:

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I absolutely LOVE this moment with all my heart. This picture is from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. The movie I loved since before I even liked movies. Everything within this frame is artistically constructed by Raimi and Cinematographer Bill Pope to convey meaning. What do you think this image is saying, what does it mean to you? The amazing thing is that there are no wrong answers regarding what this picture means to any of us whether context is provided or not. In what I consider the greatest action sequence in cinema, the villanious Dock Ock planned to kill everyone on board of a train and it took every ounce of strength for Spider-Man to catch it at 80mph, preventing it from falling over the edge with hundreds of feet below them. This accomplishment perfectly screams the core identity of Spider-Man, the average person choosing to do the extraordinary.

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It is in this instance where Bill Pope displays the friendly neighborhood hero in all his glory and transforms him into pure myth. A crippled Spider-Man without a mask begins to slowly fall forward off the tracks, but he does not fall, the kid from Queens is met with helping hands. It is such a beautiful and symbolic moment that is still powerful 16 years later . After being branded as a menace for years by the biggest tabloid newspaper in New York City, The Daily Bugle, Spider-Man is finally embraced by his fellow citizens of New York. He uses the mask for anonymity to protect his loved ones and himself from hatred. Underlying beneath the mask there is fear of his identity being discovered. All of us as viewers resonate with this imagery as we all have worn metaphorical masks at some point in our lives to protect ourselves or the ones we love.

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What does that first picture mean to me? It represents the dream we all aspire to have: acceptance. Peter Parker takes off his mask and we witness him show his heart. As a result, the people accept their call to perform social responsibility by offering respect, loyalty, safety, and love. It’s a spectacular callback to the special moment in the masterful first Spider-Man when the civilians chant, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.”

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What Is Cinematography?

It’s been quite some time since I have written anything movie related, I’ve been focused on finishing college and the circumstances have not been ideal due to the Coronavirus. More than anything, I hope you are all safe, healthy, and continue to feel the warm presence of those important to you. Know that you are special and I am constantly thinking of your well being. More than ever, I was motivated to write about cinema again as it can offer a short escape from all the madness. Thank you for reading and let us continue to stay safe at home! I love to write so I am taking this opportunity during quarantine time to focus on one of my favorite cinematographers of all time: Bill Pope.

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Before we go into depth about the life and work of the Stylebender of Cinematography, I am going to start off by reiterating how my professor defines Cinematography while also adding my own flare to it as well. He describes cinematography as “the process of distilling images into words.” Therefore, this unique art form visualizes a story and helps the audience follow a narrative along with stimulating emotions. The role of the cinematographer throughout the entire production lifecycle as the crew chief of camera and light crews is to collaborate closely with the director to create images on screen. Cinematographers, like Bill Pope, own the image and are the gifted gate-keepers responsible for making pictures speak.

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Good vs Great Cinematography

How can we identify great cinematography amongst good cinematography? Below I have provided what I think are standard examples of cinematography: Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Road Chip and The Proposal. Good cinematography is visually serviceable or appropriate for the story and viewer. I didn’t notice this before, but now looking at the two images closely, they both utilize three figure shots. There is multiple subjects in the frame all carrying the same visual weight. Naturally, they create this triangle shape, which leads us to look at each subject for the same amount of time. Therefore, it seems to be structured in a way that is sufficient.

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In contrast, we have stills that both showcase expertise in the field. To me, great cinematography is when the appealing visuals are contributing to the storytelling. Great cinematography is storytelling, it’s simply what we see on screen and how well everything is lit. Pure cinema as a visual medium prioritizes what to show viewers, exposing them to what is occuring in the frame physically, emotionally, and symbolically rather than rely on exposition to tell audiences what is going on. If a film is well made you should be able turn off the sound and still have a clear perception of the story. For example, Mad Max: Fury Road beautifully expresses this concept as there is very little dialogue. The story is perfectly conveyed by the images on the screen.

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I also think great cinematography stands out as it deals with finding a style that suits a story and staying consistent with that style throughout. For example, United 93 uses this docu-style cinematography to add a heightened sense of realism to the film. Great cinematography is a result of basic understanding of film principles such as camera placement, camera movement, shot composition, shot size, focus, and lighting. By expressing this language of cinema through any screen, we have the ability to emphasize the information that we capture within the frame. It transports you there. You feel the image. The image makes you feel.

Screen Shot 2020-04-02 at 8.09.18 PM.pngThis artistic effort cannot be possible without collaborating with a great cinematographer. Best case scenario, a director finds a storytelling partner for life. Those relationships are vital in bringing the images to life. Cinematographer Bill Pope is no exception to the rule as he has collaborated with directors like the Wachowski siblings, Sam Raimi, and Edgar Wright numerous times throughout his varied career.

nmtsnxafy8zz.pngLeft to right: Bill Pope (Cinematographer), Edgar Wright (Director)

In an interview on working with directors as guest lecturer for Global Cinematography Institute, Bill Pope states:

“The relationship with the director is where you are going to mine your artistry. Directors give you the framework to hang the things that cinematographers do. We don’t make the framework. We bring the atmosphere, the thread, the tensile, but they bring the tree.”

I think this quote perfectly reflects Pope’s work as a cinematographer.

Biography

Bill Pope is an American cinematographer, director and actor. He was born on June 19, 1952 in Bowling Green, Kentucky as William Homer Pope. He attended New York University, where he received his master’s degree in Fine Arts. Prior to graduation, Pope worked as the cinematographer on a student film, The Sixth Week, which won an Oscar for Achievement in Documentary at the 5th Annual Student Academy Awards on May 21, 1978. He got his big break doing music videos for 7 years, receiving MTV’s Best Cinematography award for his work on Sting’s video We’ll Be Together.

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His first major motion picture where he was credited as cinematographer was Sam Raimi’s Darkman in 1990, following that project was Army of Darkness in 1992. Currently, Pope is 67 years old and an active member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) with an astonishing filmography that spans 20 years.

Army-of-Darkness-5.jpgArmy of Darkness (1992)

Filmography

He has since worked with Raimi on several occasions as well as served as cinematographer for films such as Clueless, Team America:World Police, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and The Jungle Book.

tumblr_nrgpcci0n21qfn8qfo3_1280.pngClueless (1995)

Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 2.49.31 AM.pngTeam America: World Police (2004)

09 (886).jpgScott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

DcC5EkpX4AAsk7u.jpegThe Jungle Book (2016)

Most Notable Work

He is best known for his work on The Matrix, Spider-Man 2, and recently Baby Driver. These are some images from those movies that will never leave my mind.

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Awards

Unfortunately, he has never been nominated for an Oscar for Cinematography, but he has had several nominations only to claim 3 wins in his lifetime. Nominations include:

    • 1997 Independent Spirit Award Best Cinematography for Bound
    • 2000 BAFTA Film Award Best Cinematography for The Matrix
    • 2005 Golden Satellite Award Best Cinematography for Spiderman 2

I previously mentioned the two wins before, his recent win was the 2017 Outstanding Virtual Cinematography in a Photoreal Project Award for The Jungle Book from the Visual Effects Society. Honestly, he doesn’t need an award to prove anything, the images speak for themselves as they offer a rewarding and unforgettable cinematic experience.

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Enter The Matrix

Now we enter The Matrix. The Matrix was the new film from sibling filmmakers The Wachowsksi, which offered a grim vision of the future. The premise for The Matrix began with the idea that everything in our world, every single fiber of reality, is actually a simulation created in a digital universe. Once they started dealing narratively with an electronic reality, they needed someone that could push the boundaries of what may be humanly and visually possible. I appreciate this artist for doing just that.

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The graphic representations of the film, which were hand drawn by several comic-book craftsmen, were a valuable tool for Bill Pope. In Eric Lichenfeld’s book, Actions Speak Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie, Bill Pope shares his thoughts on why the Wachowski siblings chose to work with him again for this project:

“I think they hired me because I read comics and knew what they were talking about whenever they mentioned a particular title. In fact, during our meeting, there was a copy of Frank Miller’s Sin City on their desk, so I asked, ‘Is that what you want the film to look like?’ We were all impressed by Miller’s use of high-contrast, jet-black areas in the frame to focus the eye, and his extreme stylization of reality. I had long wanted to do something that stylized on film.”

You can clearly see the direct influence that Frank Miller’s Sin City had on his style in the stills below.

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I feel like stylization formed the basis of Pope’s career with experience shooting hundreds of music videos and commercials. The following consists of what I noticed as I closely examined his filmography.

Style

Use of Colors to Differentiate Locations or Realities

For this example, I chose the exterior of the real world, the Construct (loading zone), the interior of a building within the simulated world, and lastly we have a glimpse of what the outside world looks like within The Matrix. The colors are produced based on how the scenes were lit. The use of low-key lighting sets the tone for the entire movie. If you look closely at these images, there is no sunlight visible, no sunlight in the real world or The Matrix. Even the scenes where you would typically see high-key lighting are a lot more dimly lit. This technique was key to the movie’s theme of fighting for free will. The use of dim lighting and these colors gave the film an oppressive feel as it was necessary for the narrative. It displays the merger between reality and the artificial world. Just take a look at the first image. The machines are harvesting energy from human bodies, it’s bleak and symbolic of the fall of the human race.

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The majority of the movie was also tinted green as you can see from the two bottom images. As a result, the main hues used for the film were green and blue. The future in the film is cold, there is no real warmth unless it is artificial heat since the sun is completely blotted out. On the other hand, The Matrix was created by the computers, so it has that nasty green look filling the frame. This acts as a constant reminder for the viewer that they are watching a computer simulation rather than actual life. The filmmakers wanted that reality to be unappealing and I think the way he used green in the color timing was perfect. Viewers are continously connected to the visuals and aware of the dangers they face as they hide from the machines.

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Almost the entire movie was shot with that impression of distaste, the exception being when characters were in The Construct. The Construct, if you observe below, was filmed on a small stage with high-key lighting, lit extremely bright to the point where you can’t see or detect the walls or floors. In this location, they have the ability to hack and upload virtual objects. It makes perfect sense for this stage of the film to be beaming with light as it gives me hope that they can fight back when they enter The Matrix.

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Use of High Contrast

High contrast means the blacks are really dark and the whites are really bright. As a result, the images will have bright highlights, dark shadows, stunning bold colours, and show texture in the subject. This is one of my favorite aspects about his style. The pictures below absorb the eyes.

thematrix018.jpgThe Matrix (1999)

55 (889).jpgSpider-Man 2 (2004)

babydriver024.jpgBaby Driver (2017)

Use of Longer Lenses to Exaggerate Depth of Field

In these images, the focal length of the lens does has a significant impact on depth of field as the longer lenses produce much more blur, operating as a narrative tool. The images with guns, although their depth of fields are not exactly the same, are used to represent the aggressive or violent motion that is occuring. It elevates the thrill of the action. The image from Spider-Man 2 represents the moment when Spider-Man is losing his powers and the strength of his senses are deteriorating, like his eyesight. Therefore, it communicates as a shocking and intruding revelation in the movie. 

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Use of Japanese Anime Style Angles

Lastly, he loves to use obscure angles, close-ups on the eyes, and wide angles for moments of intense action. You’ll be able to see this stylization in the clips I have prepared.

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The Matrix allowed him to thrive with this particular style, it changed cinema forever as he pioneered the utilization of virtual cinematography.

What Is Virtual Cinematography?

Bill Pope is highly praised for his groundbreaking use of virtual cinematography on The Matrix Trilogy and Spider-Man films as a tactic to attract audiences. It is the process that allows for the virtual filming of computer-generated performers within a 3D environment using techniques that have already been well established in language of film. As a result, it can be used to create the photography of animated films, manipulate the appearance of computer-generated effects, and to shoot scenes from impossible camera angles

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Bill Pope used this tool in a subtle manner and managed to reach a high level of realism, making it difficult for the audience to notice that they were actually witnessing a shot created entirely by visual effects artists using 3D computer graphics tools, similar to the way that the machines made it nearly impossible for humans to notice that the were not living in the real world. Even with cinematography in the digital space, Pope could still direct how light fell on his subjects or set, live-controlling the depth of field, seeing how motion blur might affect the action sequences, and tonally dictate the overall mood of a shot. Famous scenes that would have been time consuming or impossible to produce within the frame of traditional cinematography techniques are like the slow motion scenes, coined as “bullet time.”

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Shot On What?

Gear

    • The Matrix was shot on film using Pan-Arri 435 Camera, Panavision Panaflex Platinum Camera, Panavision Panastar Camera, Photo-Sonics Cameras and Panavision Lenses
    • Spider-Man 2 was shot on film using ARRIFLEX 435 Camera, Beaumont Vista Vision Camera, Iwerks MSM 8870 Camera, Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL Camera, Panavision Panaflex Platinum Camera, Panavision System 65 Camera and Panavision Hylén System Lens, Panavision Primo Primes Spherical Lenses
    • Baby Driver was shot on film using Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 cameras, Panavision’s G Series anamorphics, along with AWZ2 and ATZ zooms, two cameras each on A and B units, G Series, T Series and C Series lenses

As you can see, shooting on film and working with Panavision is common for Bill Pope. He claims that film allows you to transport into the scene much easier as the pictures are closer to our reality and they look crisper. He describes Panavision lenses as genius, beautiful with a wonderful variety to choose from. He also states:

“They bend over backwards to get you what you want and they make sure it works for you and works within the budget. They work harder and try harder than anybody else.”

bcd9bb-0968ce-img_7563.jpgARRIFLEX 435 Camera

1_C-Sieries_ana_0_RGB012011.jpgPanavision’s G Series anamorphics

Rental price for this equipment ranges in total 10-20,000 dollars a week. So before you hop on one of these, make sure you know what you are doing and have a crew who also knows how to operate these that you trust.

Bullet Time

Here’s a quote from Peter Bracke that I think perfectly captures the impact that Pope’s ideas and innovative camera work had on the industry:

“She jumped in the air and the camera swirled around her. At that one moment, everything about big-budget moviemaking changed.”

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Having the camera pan around characters who are nearly frozen in super slo-mo, shooting up to around 300 frames per second, wasn’t something The Matrix invented, but Pope’s contribution to the film with this technique turned it into a phenomenon. The effect was immediately copied everywhere in movies and on television. Now to conclude with letting the pictures speak for themselves, these short clips all contain elements of what I have been talking about.

Analyzing Clip 1

Even before you start the clip at 2:11, you can notice there’s shallow depth of field, there’s focus on the handcuff and Trinity is blurred. The audience has no idea who this person is, she’s mysterious and possibly a lethal threat. They are in a dingy room that is tinted green with numerous police officers surrounding Trinity. Then there’s an extreme close up of the eye to exaggerate depth of field as it is illuminated with high contrast of colors. Finally, we witness bullet time, everything around her freezes, time slows down and the camera moves around her. History is made.

Analyzing Clip 2

The scene displays shallow depth of field, the car and people walking behind Peter Parker are blurry. This is on purpose so the audience can focus on the chemistry igniting between Peter Parker and Mary Jane. They slowly go in for the kiss, but then his spider senses go off. This occurs whenever Spider-Man detects danger around him, so we have a similar eye shot to Trinity’s eye shot from The Matrix, which communicates to the audience to pay attention because something intense is happening. Dock Ock throws a through the window and then we transition into slow motion, the same technique for bullet time seems to be applied here, it’s reminiscent of neo dodging bullets. The segment ends with extreme zooms to alert us that something is approaching and fast. As a result, the audience experience Spider-Man’s perspective and heightens the sense of reality. Brilliant.

Analyzing Clip 3

High contrast is established immediately, then there’s an extreme zoom to alert the audience that the alarm has been set off as the criminals rob the bank. What’s fascinating about Baby Driver is that the visuals, editing, and sound are completely in sync. Therefore, the project is extremely sophisticated and memorable. There is a throwback aesthetic present within the frame, right down to the nature of stunt work and the car chase scenes. Everything you see is a visual and thematic rejection of the current roster of car movies that are so heavily CGI’d and fantastical. The cameras are placed in the car with the actors actually driving them. As a result, audience members feel completely involved. This sequence epitomizes the artistry and craftsmanship needed for the Edgar Wright project.

The AMAZING Bill Pope

These are some of my favorite shots from Bill Pope. I have yet to see a movie by this artist that I dislike. My favorite film of his is definitely Spider-Man 2, the powerful images are burned in my head, they speak volumes to me personally. His imagery is a reflection of how I hope to be perceived in the world, as a person capable of accomplishing good and loving others for as long as life offers.

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I adore his work, not only are his images visually gorgeous, it is obvious that he takes a great deal of consideration in filling his frame with passion, creativity, versatility, and intelligence. He’s taught me that great cinematography consists of lighting, framing, and style that fit the narrative and themes of the movie. He is fueled by ambition, which is something we can strive to shoot for when molding our own craft as artists. It’s about making thoughtful decisions of what to include in the frame or what to exclude. Therefore, we can show stories to others the way they deserve to be seen. He is the one. If we continue to expand the medium through a labor of love, he will not be the last stylebender of cinematography.

 

 

 

 

One response to “The Beauty of Bill Pope – Stylebender of Cinematography

  1. As a fan of Bill Pope’s work, this article provides information that not only showcases the dedication this artist has to his craft but the inspiration as well. Only someone who understands a director’s material and vision as intimately and emotionally as Pope does can draft images such as these. His work is ahead of his time and ours. I hope, like the author, that he continues to stretch the meaning of “cinematography.” Good show!

    Like

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